Bright July sunshine soaked through Willow Dunaway’s bamboo T-shirt as she took a bite of her veggie wrap. The lunch rush at The Purple Pig Café was over, and she’d snuck out for twenty minutes or so just to enjoy a bit of fresh air and a snack. The “Green,” as the locals called it, was a park that ran alongside Fisher’s Creek. The town kept the grass neatly clipped, flower beds watered and weeded, and had installed several benches both in the sun and in the shade of trees. Willow loved it. Sure, it was more manicured than wild and natural, but it was still calm and restful. Even when, like today, the tourists came to take their turn on the Kissing Bridge that spanned the creek, guaranteeing that their love would last forever. It was a cute, if somewhat silly, concept that played a major part in the town’s economy.
Willow had been back in Darling, Vermont, for just over a year. After six years in Florida, she’d come back to northern climes and had to adjust to the change in seasons. She’d stayed through the cold winter, deep snow, frigid temperatures, and the ski season that brought downhillers to the inns and bed-and-breakfasts in town. Through the pale green of early spring, when the snow melted, tiny sprigs of grass poked up through the earth, testing to see if winter was truly over, and crocuses and snowdrops carpeted front yards with the first bursts of color. Through the warm, lazy summer beside the lake and a bright, cozy autumn filled with colors and the scent of fallen leaves in the air.
She’d liked living in Florida. And it had served its purpose. She’d had to get away—from memories, mostly. Someplace neutral where she could sort out her thoughts and feelings and get her feet beneath herself again. Clearwater had done that for her. But in the end, Darling had beckoned her back. And when she’d checked realty listings and noticed the café up for sale, she’d known it was time to come home. Now, a year later, some of the new-business pressure had eased as the café was a resounding success. For the first time in many, many years, Willow felt everything was just as it should be.
She took another bite of her wrap and watched a young couple trot along the path to the stone bridge, the town’s number one tourist attraction. Willow had heard at least three versions of how the Kissing Bridge got its name, but there was one consistency in every single story: when a couple kissed on the bridge, it was said that their love would last forever. She thought it was cute, and she smiled a little as the pair reached the top of the arch, looked out over the sparkling creek, and then kissed.
On a less sentimental side, no one could deny the revenue the Kissing Bridge brought to Darling. Whether it was a simple kiss, a proposal, or posing for wedding pictures, the bridge was a huge draw. Heck, her best friend had just been married there a month ago. Laurel and Aiden had surprised everyone with the impromptu ceremony disguised as a publicity photo shoot for the town’s new tourism campaign. Now the two of them were cozied up together in Laurel’s house, acting like newlyweds. Willow missed seeing her friend, but she wouldn’t begrudge Laurel this happiness for the world. She’d earned it.
The bridge kept The Purple Pig busy, too. Willow put the lid back on the container she’d used for the wrap and dropped it into her tote bag. She really should get back. There was supper prep that needed doing.
The couple on the bridge kissed again and stood with their arms around each other for a while. Willow watched for a few stolen seconds, feeling a wistfulness open up inside her. She hadn’t had a real relationship in so long. She’d tried, once, in Clearwater. He’d been in her yoga class. An ex-soldier with a soft spot for animals and meditation. At first he’d seemed perfect. But then Willow had discovered that he carried even more baggage than she did. Instead of healing wounds, they’d ended up bringing each other down. Walking away had been the right, if painful, decision.
Life was good now. She had the business. She had good friends. She was at peace with a lot of things from her past, and those she wasn’t, she’d at least accepted. She should feel perfectly happy. Not like there was something missing.
It was past two thirty, so she shouldered her bag and stood up, knowing her assistant manager, Emily, could use the help making sure things were ready for the supper rush. She’d just taken a step when a soccer ball came out of nowhere, bouncing between her feet.
She looked up and saw a boy, maybe five years old, running at her full tilt. “Whoa,” she ordered, laughing. “Slow down, buddy.”
“Sorry, lady.” Brown eyes flashed up at her, full of boyish charm. He looked familiar somehow. Maybe he’d come into the café before or something.
“No worries,” she replied, giving it a light kick with the side of her foot. “Here you go.” He trapped it—rather expertly for such a small boy, she thought—beneath the toe of his sneaker.
The kid squinted against the sun as he looked at her. “How come your hair is pink?”
She laughed again, enchanted by his honesty. It wasn’t the first time she’d been asked that question since she’d added the pink stripe. “Oh, I felt like doing something fun with it.” She squatted down in front of him. “Do you like it?”
“It’s all right, I guess. ’Cept I like green.” He peered at her closer. “And you have a thing in your nose.”
God, the little guy was charming. Dark auburn hair with just a hint of curl and eyes that were guaranteed to break a girl’s heart someday. She pointed toward her nose. “My stud? It’s a real diamond.”
The boy’s head shot up as a masculine voice called his name. “That’s my dad,” he said, biting his lip. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Have fun.”
He smiled and turned around, only his dad was walking toward them with purposeful steps. Another boy, a little younger, raced behind, trying to keep up.
Willow stood and tried hard not to gawk. He was tall—over six feet for sure, and in jeans and a plain T-shirt she could tell he was in good shape. When he looked at her it was as if she’d suddenly taken a blow to her chest, pushing out all the air so she couldn’t breathe. Even with the stern look on his face he was stunning in a rough way. Strong jaw, seriously blue eyes, and auburn hair, a little on the long side, unruly with a bit of natural curl. It wasn’t hard to imagine him in shorts and cleats, sweaty from playing soccer. Or in a kilt, like one of those highlanders in the books she’d been reading lately.
She had to get a grip.
“Connor, it’s time to go. Next time I tell you, you listen, rather than kicking the ball in the other direction, you hear?”
Alas, Willow thought with disappointment, there wasn’t a hint of a Scottish brogue in his terse voice. The boy’s face fell at his father’s sharp tone … Had it really been necessary for him to be so snappish? Any lingering romantic notions fizzled completely as she realized he was assessing her. From the look on his face, he didn’t like what he saw.
Wait. He seemed familiar. He … that was it. He was one of Aiden and Hannah’s brothers. But which one? She frowned. She and Aiden were the same age. He had a younger brother … Rory. Hannah was a few years older than Willow. And there were the twins and then … that meant this was the older brother. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember his name. What she did remember, however, was Laurel and Aiden’s wedding reception. She’d caught the bouquet. He’d caught the garter. And he’d slipped it onto her calf in one of the most awkward, uncomfortable moments of her life. As soon as the elastic had snapped onto her leg, he’d extricated himself from the embarrassing situation. More like run away, a little voice in her head chided. As fast as he could manage it.
“Connor,” he said, only slightly softer, “take the ball and your brother and go put your stuff in the backpack.”
“Yes, Dad,” Connor said, the earlier ebullience gone from his voice. “Come on, Ronan.” He held out his hand and the other boy took it. Willow watched them and couldn’t help the little smile that curved her lips. The brothers were cute, and it was clear that the younger one idolized the older. He had similar hair and eyes, but he looked up at his big brother like he ruled the world.
“They’re very cute,” she said, hoping the pleasant tone would ease the stern look on the dad’s face.
“They’re very energetic. And stubborn.”
“Aw, don’t be too hard on them.” She tried smiling again. “It’s a beautiful day on the Green. You can’t blame them for wanting to play a little longer.”
He was quiet for a moment. She saw his gaze slide over the pink streak in her blond hair, and a tiny lift of his eyebrow telegraphed his disapproval. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. People put color in their hair all the time.
“I’m Willow,” she said, holding out her hand, determined to be polite.
“Of course you are,” he replied, and he shook her hand. Briefly. “Laurel’s … friend.”
Willow bristled at the dismissive way he said “friend.” She kind of wished he hadn’t opened his mouth. The fantasy of him being … well, different, was pretty much gone. Instead she got the impression that he didn’t know how to smile.
So she made her smile bigger and said, “And you’re one of Aiden’s brothers, right?”
That’s right. Ethan. “I knew you looked familiar. It’s the Gallagher hair and eyes.”
His stern expression didn’t change.
“Come on, it’s a compliment. Hannah’s gorgeous.”
He sighed, then looked over his shoulder to check on the boys. “And she knows it, too. I’d better get back.”
Wow. Would it have killed him to say thank you? “Me, too. I’d better get back to work.”
“At The Purple Pig,” he said.
She frowned. She was sure he hadn’t been in before when she’d been working. “How did you know that?”
“It’s on your shirt?”